Top EPA scientist describes new attitude at agency

Chief EPA scientist
Pai-Yei Whung is the new chief scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency. She was in St. Paul today to talk about the agency's new priorities, and consult with the U of M professor who chairs the EPA's council of scientific advisors.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

You've heard a lot of debate about greenhouse gases, and the role they play in climate change. But there may be another factor you might not have heard about -- dinner.

Black carbon, better known as soot, may be a significant contributor to climate change. Cooking fires that burn wood and cow dung in southern Asia are a big source of the soot -- along with diesel engines around the globe.

The U.S. could play a key role in coming to grips with black carbon when climate talks begin in Denmark later this year, according to Pai-Yei Whung, the chief scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Deborah Swackhamer
Deborah Swackhamer, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, is the current chair of the EPA's scientific advisory board.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"We have selected the U.S.'s top climate negotiator in the State Department three days ago. So the question is what kind of science will we enable the climate change negotiator to discuss in Copenhagen," said Whung.

It would be a sharp break from the past if the U.S. decides to try to set the agenda on climate change, rather than debate whether or not it's happening.

That was just one example of the turn in federal policy that Whung said she expects to see in coming years in the Obama administration. She joined the EPA last year, and is one of the agency's key scientific advisors.

Whung was in Minnesota today to talk about the EPA, and to consult with another key advisor, Dr. Deborah Swackhamer, head of the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center.

"I think that science was marginalized as a discipline by the last administration."

Swackhamer is a nationally recognized expert on water quality and health. She's made a career of studying the Great Lakes.

She recently began a two-year term as chair of the EPA's scientific advisory board. That's the group of scientists the new administration will consult on some of the most burning scientific questions of our day, such as climate change and water quality.

"I think that science was marginalized as a discipline by the last administration," said Swackhamer.

Swackhamer was a member of the EPA's scientific board for five years before she became chair last fall.

"I did see, over and over, that our advice was sort of -- it was accepted and taken in, but it was not used," she said. "And at times, they actually made choices against scientific evidence that suggested their decision-making was actually wrong."

Both Swackhamer and Whung say they're hopeful that will change. They cited incoming EPA administrator Lisa Jackson's testimony in the U.S. Senate earlier this month, promising to put scientific research at the core of the EPA's mission.

Whung talked about the future before a standing-room-only crowd of students, environmentalists and state officials at the University of Minnesota.

"I'm really optimistic about how the agency is going to acknowlege and honor the importance of science in our rule-making and decision-making," said Whung.

The U of M's Swackhamer said she looks forward to taking part in that change. She will head the EPA's scientific advisors through 2010.